This post is co-authored by Karin Wulf and Seth Denbo, Director of Scholarly Communication and Digital Initiatives for the American Historical Association
In a Scholarly Kitchen post earlier this week, Lisa Hinchliffe summarized some basic themes in the thousands of pages of responses to Plan S. One of her six themes was the STEM-centric features of Plan S, and the problems it poses for humanists. We wanted to explore this in greater detail, historians that we are, by looking to the recent history of the historical discipline’s engagement with open access (OA) policies. Of course this doesn’t represent the view of all historians, who may have diverging individual perspectives. We take a close look at some of the themes that have been sounded by disciplinary organizations over the past decade, both to offer our colleagues in scholarly communications who are thinking about the features and implications of Plan S some greater insight, but also to offer colleagues in history a purchase on what might seem like abstract, distant or irrelevant debates.
Let’s start, though, by noting some of the common ground that may get lost in the debates. Concern for the specific requirements of Plan S, like reactions to the Finch Report, or HEFCE’s REF policies, tends to obscure the very real and deep commitment to openness and accessibility among historians. Indeed it is one of the most frustrating dimensions of these policies that they become so divisive, rather than seeking common ground. If we could start some of these OA discussions with a real commitment to respecting one another’s experiences, intentions, and situation, and if a truly large scale collaborative approach were sought, we would make enormous gains. Not just for OA, but because in a time when scholarship, from science to history, is so crucial, more cross-sector understanding and support that might truly make more and better scholarship available seems to us to be vital.
“Open Access” is a term that has come to mean a set of policies about publishing, archiving, and disseminating scholarship. It’s not a bad idea to read the Wikipedia entry, if only to grasp that there is a longer history here than we’re able to tell, and also to see how OA can be summarized, even while there are sharply divergent views about features of OA. OA is generally understood as part of a larger movement to make scientific research more easily, publicly available. And a frustration with the very high cost of largely commercially published, largely STEM journal publication fueled librarians’ enthusiastic commitment to OA. The Berlin Declaration of 2003 lays out the basic components of OA:
“Open access contributions must satisfy two conditions:The author(s) and right holder(s) of such contributions grant(s) to all users a free, irrevocable, worldwide, right of access to, and a license to copy, use, distribute, transmit and display the work publicly and to make and distribute derivative works, in any digital medium for any responsible purpose, subject to proper attribution of authorship (community standards, will continue to provide the mechanism for enforcement of proper attribution and responsible use of the published work, as they do now), as well as the right to make small numbers of printed copies for their personal use.
A complete version of the work and all supplemental materials, including a copy of the permission as stated above, in an appropriate standard electronic format is deposited (and thus published) in at least one online repository using suitable technical standards (such as the Open Archive definitions) that is supported and maintained by an academic institution, scholarly society, government agency, or other well-established organization that seeks to enable open access, unrestricted distribution, inter operability, and long-term archiving.”
The two fundamental features of the Berlin Declaration, therefore, are free use/reuse and deposit. Obviously, a desire for access to research and the very specific proposals for OA are part of much larger forces in the global economy, the information economy, the sectors for higher education, and scholarly communications, and the place where the budgets of those latter two meet on the ground of publication costs, which is libraries. But the changes in the landscape of research, higher education funding, and technology (in all sectors, including publishing) have changed the way in which these two fundamental features of the Berlin Declaration could be realized. And, crucially, the ways in which these features have been realized–in fact monetized — by the largest commercial publishers have further frustrated some of the idealistic as well as pragmatic concerns that originally fueled OA.
A series of policies, notably for the purposes of our post, non-mandatory policies adopted by US faculty governance bodies, and mandatory policies created by centralized UK higher education administrative bodies, have provoked increasingly concerned reactions from historians. These policies prescribe to varying degrees the kinds of journals in which scholars may publish based on how well they accord with the principles of OA. Is the journal supported by subscriptions (a barrier to readership), or by Article Processing Charges (APCs), paid by or paid on behalf of the author? Is the journal or book free to read online immediately upon publication, or is there an embargo to allow for a period of subscription revenue? Is the research published without copyright, using a Creative Commons or other license that establishes reuse and derivative use? Is an early or final published version of the author’s research deposited either in their home institution’s library or elsewhere? In the case of UK policies adopted in the wake of the Finch Report (2012), an effort to assess and prescribe a path to making scholarship freely accessible to read, we point colleagues to a series of briefings from the Royal Historical Society (RHS) which were and are applicable to the particular requirements UK academics face, but which also have included essential background and even glossaries concerning OA.
Then just this last year Plan S was announced, a mandate not from governments or higher education institutions, but from a group of funders, requiring their grant recipients to publish under specific, rigid conditions. Last week collectives of both UK- and US-based history journal editors and leading organizations issued letters of concern about Plan S. If you’re new to Plan S, a number of Scholarly Kitchen posts, including yesterday’s, have discussed its scope and details. Angela Cochran’s post is a good place to start, and includes key links. Another place to start is the Coalition S page on implementation and the feedback period, which ended February 8. The UK journal editors’ letter is posted on the website of Past and Present here. The American Historical Association (AHA) letter is here. We also recommend the substantial and important work of our colleagues at the RHS in their interim report and formal response to Plan S, “The View from History.”
What could be possibly be objectionable about openness and accessibility? The conversations we’ve been part of since 2012 generally start by asserting that openness has value, and few historians would dispute the merits of reaching broad audiences. However, many mandates — including those that arose from the conclusions of the Finch report — were explicitly designed to solve problems in scientific publishing. Thus, throughout the history of OA mandates, historians and other humanists have repeatedly tried to draw attention to the ways in which funding of research and modes of scholarly communication differ from those in the sciences, such as the array of biomedical fields, that have large budgets for major research initiatives. From citation metrics to embargo periods, there are many ways to clearly demonstrate that historical scholarship (likely humanities scholarship, likely lots of scholarship) is simply produced and consumed very differently from the big science models that are driving OA. Historical writing has a much longer half-life than that in many other fields, and in fact can take a period of years to be widely recognized and read. Therefore the application of short embargo periods makes little sense as a way to mitigate the implications of OA on the publisher. This long life for scholarship means that while in the humanities the effectiveness of a journal or publisher is important, there is less focus on measuring numbers of citations in the short term as a means for assessing value. APCs, to take another example, may make sense in the context of publications from the Principal Investigator of a grant-funded lab.
A white paper co-authored by Eric Slauter and Karin Wulf for a 2014 summit of history journal editors on OA begins thus: “If we could put the fine essays and reviews in the William and Mary Quarterly into the hands of every potential reader around the globe, immediately and without cost, why wouldn’t we want to?” Back then it was a question posed by an OA advocate, and Karin heard a version of the same from a colleague just months ago. This kind of question assumes that if we wanted to do this, we should figure out how to do it. And that is basically the premise on which OA proceeds. But that assumes that free and immediate access for readers is a more important attribute or action than any other. Historians have come up with other answers, including the need for equitable access to publications outlets. Indeed, OA policies would often particularly disadvantage early career or non-affiliated researchers, or any scholar without substantial funder or institutional backing.
With the publication of its 10 principles, Plan S set out the direction in which funders and policy-makers who have endorsed it are heading, and the range of possibilities for researchers and journals to meet funder expectations has been narrowed significantly. The coordination of responses internationally results from ever greater regulation, which constricts allowable forms of compliance. The codification of a narrow version of OA — the expectation of CC BY licenses, favoring APC-funded publications, the banning of hybrid journals — alarmed a lot of editors of journals and scholarly societies, which led to the collective action and letter writing.
This is the crux of the matter. Rather than being against openness, what concerns many historians who deal with this issue is the narrowness of the definition of “open”. We see five major areas vital to historical scholarly communication, that have been the focus of a number of these responses to mandates over the years, and that will have to be accommodated in any effort at fully multidisciplinary, widely adopted OA: the role of editing; funding differentials; the distinction between book and journal disciplines; the need for coherence in published work, making necessary a flexible attitude toward OA licenses; and the threat to international collaboration. Every one of these has been covered in depth elsewhere, but in bringing them together in a brief post assaying what seems now like a long history of responding to initiatives designed for other disciplines we are struck anew at the consistency.
Historians work with words; editing is thus a major rather than a minor part of the production of historical scholarship, and a key piece of the full research cycle. Workshopping a piece of writing typically happens in formal (conference and seminar) as well as informal (reading and writing group) settings, refining an argument through the language that best expresses it. Editing in historical publications encompasses a range of work, including summarizing suggestions for revisions made by peer reviewers, substantive and specialist editorial input, copy editing, and source checking. Review is not a gatekeeping function; it serves to improve scholarship and published work so that it makes the best possible contribution to knowledge. All of this work is vital to the production of high quality history publications, and simply cannot be dispensed with while retaining the integrity of historical knowledge. The RHS briefing paper on OA and the 2027 REF asks “What funding arrangements will guarantee that current standards of peer review and long-form text curation (including series-editing and copy-editing) are maintained?” This is a vital question when attempts are being made to up-end long standing business models that support scholarly publishing in history.
While Plan S does not mandate APCs as the only route to compliance, upfront payments are the principle route. APCs are incredibly rare in any discipline in which scholarship is not funded by large-scale research grants. In 2013 the AHA responded to the growing calls for APC-driven OA with a policy for its journal, the American Historical Review. The AHA’s governing body felt that APCs were unacceptable, in principle as well as in practice. Moving to a pay-to-publish model could compromise peer review, and also exacerbate inequities between independent scholars and faculty. The goal of creating one kind of openness would raise other kinds of barriers, in this case to publication. In history the shift to expectations that scholars or their institutions cover the cost of publication introduces new inequities between faculty and independent or contingent scholars, between scholars at community colleges or HBCUs and research institutions, and between scholars working within and outside the academy. Covering the cost of publication when mandates prevent subscriptions involves trade-offs, and APCs will exclude scholars who are an absolutely vital part of our scholarly communities.
Additionally, the types of funding that supports historical research typically comes from a variety of small grants from different institutions. A piece of research resulting in a specific publication is not a humanities model. Several archival institutions, for example, might fund several weeks of work each for perhaps a couple of thousand dollars, a society might fund a month, possibly a larger institution or even an employer might fund a year of research leave. But by the time a historian has written a book, they might have had a half dozen — or many more — grants of what to other disciplines would look like very small sums. What or which would be the controlling entity in this typical scenario, requiring that the historian meet their publication requirements?
Journals v Books
While journals have been the focus of OA policies, the logical next step would be to require that books as well as journals are open. Like other “book disciplines,” history particular places a heavy emphasis on monograph publication. Funders have tackled this issue as well, but we note that the economics of monographs is very different; nonprofit university presses have had to juggle a difficult balance sheet to provide for the type of editorial work that longform scholarship of this type requires. In short, OA for monographs brings its own complications, some of them magnified versions of journal publication, including the high price tag on “gold” academic book charges, and the potential for excluding worthy scholars and scholarship lacking the means to pay. Experiments in monograph publishing have shown promise, but have been generally quite limited in scope. And while these experiments continue, policies which mandate open access offer no space for them to really bear fruit on the necessary scale.
Certainly, using Creative Common licenses has removed barriers. The ability to freely surrender certain rights to the public has opened up the web and allowed much greater flexibility for sharing work. But mandates by funders have limited the freedom to use various licenses, even while the most open licenses may not be appropriate for historical scholarship. Where arguments are carefully crafted, and without context meaning easily changed or just misconstrued, the integrity of writing needs to be maintained. A worked example in an RHS report shows how the deletion or replacement of just five words changes the meaning of an intensive piece of historical scholarship, from an analysis of slavery to support for a specious argument that there were no enslaved persons in 18th century Britain (a highly politicized issue). Restricting OA to only CC BY licenses, while it allows for reuse in ways that can be beneficial, such as allowing text mining or data collecting, simply has to be at the discretion of the scholar. Funders should understand the implications of insisting on the broadest rights, especially when allowing more restrictive licenses that still support sharing, but ensure editorial integrity, would satisfy the needs of scholars.
Historians work across borders. When national bodies, whether governments or funders, institute policies that affect scholarship, they make international collaborations much more difficult. This point has been made repeatedly, but like the above, bears repeating.
Finally, we have heard the complaints. OA is moving too slowly. A radical approach like Plan S is necessary. But we also hear repeatedly that the real problems are with the same high cost commercial science publications that prompted some of the initial OA advocacy. We are not taking a position on those business models. Rather, we are pointing out that the long-term commitment of humanities publication, most of it done by non-profits, often by societies, often in the context of other activities that support research and career development — has also been produced in the context of low cost accessibility before OA was a phenomenon.
Stepping back and looking at how historians have responded to OA initiatives suggests how critical it will be for future initiatives to work from the start with a broad coalition of groups across disciplines. It also suggests the key divergences of emphasis, and thus areas where compromise may be achievable. Above all, it suggests how enmeshed in larger assumptions the vocabularies in use around OA can become. Even shared values get obscured in these debates. The unintended consequences of sweeping policies, drafted or instituted without deeper and broader consultation across disciplines and among wider coalitions of stakeholders has been consistently unproductive. The lack of common ground, which hampers forthright discussion, seems to arise from the unwillingness among many involved in these debates to see other routes to openness or other values in the scholarly communication landscape as valid. What would be the result of a genuine congress on access? Bringing scholars, librarians, publishers, and funders from different disciplines and from across the globe together might show where real areas of common purpose and common commitment lie.